Was Chicago Smarter than San Diego?

In 1997, I visited America’s First City of Architecture for the first time, to meet my future in-laws before I married their daughter. Visiting Chicago during a warm spring, I felt like Ferris Bueller; in one single day we went to a White Sox game, visited the Art Institute, checked out the modern public art downtown and capped off my own personal Day Off with a nightcap at Buddy Guy’s Southside blues club. I was and continue to be amazed at the rich architectural history in Chicago. Following the 1871 Great Chicago Fire, leading architects from the Midwest flocked to Chicago to rebuild and become the “City that Can”. From Sullivan and Adler’s Auditorium Building (1889) to Sullivan’s Carson Pirie Scott and Co. (1904), the modern Monadnock Building (Burham & Root, 1891), some of America’s greatest buildings were being built as well as a new and unique residential architecture genre that rose from the flat Prairie landscape – the Prairie School, led by Walter Burley Griffin, George Elmslie, Marion Mahony, William Purcell and of course, arguably one of America’s greatest artists, Frank Lloyd Wright. But, there was another type of building being constructed during this time, the humble bungalow – a brick one and one-half story house that became known as the Chicago Bungalow. Between 1900 and 1930, the Chicago Bungalow with their detailed windows, stone work, pitched roofs, sheltered entrances and neat lawns become the dominant style of homes for thousands in the outer neighborhoods. The Chicago Bungalow also addressed issues raised by progressive and social reformers of the time, such as Jane Addams, regarding the unsanitary, threatening and appalling conditions of the late 19th century Victorian housing.

Janet and I stay with her sister and family in historic Edison Park, at their Northside 1920s Chicago Bungalow with original art glass, woodwork and fireplace, whenever we visit the “Windy City”. We always take time to visit “heritage tourism” places during our stay, such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s piece de resistance Prairie School, 1908 Frederick C. Robie House; the Wright Home & Studio in Oak Park; Wright’s poured concrete Unity Temple (1905) and H.H. Richardson’s Glessner House (1887). We love to drive around and view the wonderful homes in Oak Park, Hyde Park, River Forest and Riverside. This past holiday season, we took a three hour bus tour on a beautiful Saturday to Hyde Park, the Gold Coast, Mies van der Rohe’s IIT campus and saw many historic districts and toured the interior of the Rookery in the Loop. We also took a self-guided walking tour during an unseasonably warm day to tour the Old Edgebrook Historic District.

Whenever we travel to Chicago, I wonder why they have so many more bungalows than we do here in San Diego. Nearly everywhere you drive you see older buildings and homes. There are over 100,000 bungalows in Chicago or about one-third of their housing stock in the city of Chicago. Contrast this with less than five percent of our housing stock. While San Diego is an older city than Chicago (1769 vs. 1837), we grew at a much slower rate, mostly because Chicago quickly became a center of commerce owing to its strategic location on the great waterways of America. But, what happened to all of our bungalows? San Diego was once home to thousands of bungalows throughout Bankers’ Hill, Golden Hill, Hillcrest, Loma Portal, Mission Hills, North Park, Sherman Heights, South Park, University Heights, not to mention Chula Vista, Coronado, Escondido, La Jolla, La Mesa, National City, Oceanside and other older county communities. Who are we to blame for the loss of our bungalows and our cultural history? While housing styles changed after World War Two, bungalows became outdated as returning GIs and their families moved to new communities north of I-8. In the 1960s and 70s poor planning destroyed whole blocks with “Huffman Six-Packs” and other unfortunate housing development in the older parts of San Diego. Developers demolished older homes left and right in the name of making a quick buck or new homeowners moved into town without a sense of history or place. Isn’t California a place of starting over, beginning anew?

So, was Chicago smarter than we were after WW2 and during the especially destructive years of the 1960s and 70s? Were San Diego developers more powerful and connected to the good-old-boys running City Hall? A few years ago, I picked up a wonderful book about Richard Nickel titled “They All Fall Down, Richard Nickel’s Struggle to Save America’s Architecture”. Nickel was a photographer and preservationist who in the 1950’s and 1960’s tried to save Louis Sullivan buildings as Mayor Richard J. Daley was tearing them down in the name of Urban Renewal. Chicago lost a lot of great architectural treasures, from the humble bungalows to important Sullivan and Wright buildings such as the Garrick Theater. The book is a fascinating account of Nickel’s attempt to document Sullivan buildings with incredible black and white photography and also documents his struggle to save important Sullivan artifacts while buildings were being demolished. Tragically, Nickel died while salvaging ornament from Sullivan’s landmark Chicago Stock Exchange Building in 1972.

Maybe Chicago was no different from San Diego. Chicago also lost a lot of great buildings as well as bungalows because of the failure of planners, developers, real estate agents, politicians and homeowners who didn’t want grandma’s old bungalow and whose vision didn’t include the soul of a city or the history of individual neighborhoods. Simply put, there are more bungalows in Chicago today because they started out with more. However, I do think that Chicago now appreciates their heritage more openly than we do. Their civic leaders came to realize the importance of historic buildings and homes. Chicago has 34 historic districts and they have identified over 17,300 historic properties. San Diego has only seven residential historic districts and most of these (Grant Hill, Pueblo Ribera in La Jolla, Shirley Ann and Talmadge are very small – some with only eight to ten homes in their entire district). It might be argued that Chicago has had more vision than we have. The battles that we are fighting in preservation have largely already been fought and won there. Mayor Richard M. Daley, grew up in a Southside Chicago Bungalow and started the Historic Chicago Bungalow Initiative in 2000 to preserve ALL Chicago Bungalows ( www.chicagobungalow.org ) – a program that includes education, marketing and financing to preserve the thousands of Chicago Bungalows still standing.

Meanwhile, the City of San Diego and Historic Resources Board believes that OUR bungalows can be torn-down because we have too many. Too many?! We don’t have enough! Do San Diegans believe that a San Diego bungalow that has deferred maintenance has no redeeming value and can be demolished for something Big and New and Modern? Do San Diegans believe that a San Diego bungalow does not contribute to the vision of the City of Villages – despite the fact that OUR bungalows were built as part of trolley-car suburbs and were the “smart growth” communities that current plans aspire to? Our bungalows are being sacrificed TODAY as they were in years past by our civic leaders and city planners at a time when a lot of people desire living in these simple, yet dignified homes. Bungalows are made out of 200 year old wood; old growth timber (now a rarity) as well as an incredible craftsmanship also gone and we honor the materials and craftsmanship of these talented people by preserving EVERY bungalow today. Yes, it seems that Chicago’s politicians; city planners and developers were and ARE smarter than ours!

Every humble bungalow lost strikes our soul, slowly chips away at our past, our history and our legacy. We are losing our collective past, home by home. Someday people will have to travel to historic districts just to view a bungalow. Historic districts will become de facto house museums unless we as a society learn that every bungalow is special we will end up with nothing but generic cookie cutter mass-produced houses that get mowed down every thirty years to make room for the newest model. We must all step up to the plate. For your next home, consider buying a bungalow, research it, have it historically designated, mobilize your community by forming a historic district, educate your real estate agent about the value of older homes, support political candidates who understand preservation. There is too much at stake for you to sit on the sidelines and watch the gradual loss of our history. We must elect leaders who listen and care about the quality of life in the community. We must demand that our mayor appoint leaders who respect the history and character of our communities from the Planning Commission, the Historic Resources Board and Development Services. Until such time, Chicago will continue to be smarter than we are.